Every once in a great while I come across a book that I feel as if I’ve been waiting my whole life to read—Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner is one of those rare delights.
I spent the majority of my teenage years searching for well-written novels that featured gay romantic relationships, or at the very least, contained gay characters. I had very little luck finding anything that wasn’t either poorly written or brutally tragic. The title characters never failed to meet violent and traumatic ends, either as the victims of hate-crimes and domestic abuse or because they contracted AIDS. The world of homosexuality outlined in these books was a dark and hopeless one. I longed for the stories I loved in other books but with gay characters alongside straight, stories in which gender and sexuality were challenged and questioned, in which characters interacted with each other in ways outside of the conventional modes.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to encounter writers who incorporate homosexuality in their books as seamlessly as it is in the world of my day-to-day life, and unsurprisingly many of these are writers of historical fiction and YA fantasy, writers like Sarah Rees Brennan, Cassandra Clare, Kristin Cashore and Sarah Waters. Swordspoint contains what I sought for in books of various genres for years: a title character in a relationship with someone of the same sex that is both realistic and compelling and contains in equal parts humor and strife, sorrow and romance, but which does not dominate the entire story. Alongside the unfolding interactions of the two central characters is an intricately plotted story full of political intrigue, passionate love affairs, and the elaborate social maneuvers of the upper class as they attempt to outsmart one another with the help of those lower down on the social strata. What results is a fascinating portrait of class dynamics and political ambition in the many-faceted, imaginary world of Kushner’s making.
Swordspoint is worthy of note not only because it contains a world in which homosexuality is not taboo (where characters of both genders sleep with both genders alike), but because it is so richly imagined and brought to life in such vivid detail, with humane and complex characters at the heart of the story. The city Ellen Kushner creates is one in which I suspect many of us would love to live—it is made up of bits and pieces of all of Kushner’s favorite cities both real and imagined—full of twisting alleyways and gabled eaves heavy with newly-fallen snow, where nobles sip chocolate out of fragile china cups and swordsman fight to the death on cobbled streets.
The world of Kushner’s imagination is evocative and richly textured and yet the novel remains slim at only 286 pages because of the author’s stunning ability to illustrate multiple aspects of her world in the fewest words possible. Her writing is so elegantly compact that I felt compelled to read most scenes in the book at least three times—once to take in all the new information I was receiving about the way the world worked, a second time to revel in the beauty of the descriptive quality of her writing, and a third time to appreciate the emotional consequences of the characters’ interactions.
Like eating very good chocolate or drinking very fine wine, reading Swordspoint requires a subtle and experienced palette—the various textures and nuances contained within the story are so artfully combined in such a short space, a less-attentive reader might miss some of what makes it so sumptuous. It takes extra concentration on the part of the reader to fully absorb all the elements that Kushner is bringing to life but the end result is so sensual, so complex and delightful, that it’s worth every bit of extra effort.